‘No doubt about it, the fair is back.’
RIDGEFIELD — Clark County Fair administrators took a look at the grandstands and were in awe of all of the people.
There were too many people in fact.
On two occasions last week, fair officials had to stop allowing people into the grandstands prior to shows in order to comply with the standards set by the fire marshal.
Tuff Trucks and Monster Trucks are awfully big draws, of course.
“The grandstands are full and then you look and you realize, ‘I don’t see any stairways going up anywhere.’ It gets out of the bleachers and people are sitting in the stairways,” said John Morrison Jr., the fair manager. “I didn’t see any aisles.”
At that point, it was a matter of squeezing everyone into the bleacher seats or asking them to leave.
Over the final weekend, lines for some carnival rides were more than an hour. It is estimated more than 30,000 people showed up on Saturday and more than 30,000 made it out to the fairgrounds on Sunday.
On Sunday night, Butler Amusements kept the carnival open more than an hour past closing time in order to allow folks to take one final ride on the final night of the fair.
“No doubt about it, the fair is back,” Morrison said. “It is a great event. It was a lot of work to put it on.”
He praised this year’s slogan, as well
“It was ‘Worth the Wait,” he said, adding, “It was worth what it took to do it.”
Fair administrators take this week to reflect on what went right, areas of improvement, and, yes, start planning for 2023.
As far as hard, true numbers, Morrison does not have official attendance numbers just yet. The fair is using a new ticketing system. Even when the totals are added up, it will be difficult to compare to previous years. The fair has used so many different counting systems, including hand clickers for some years, that it really cannot say for certain which year had the biggest turnout.
Anecdotally, and through estimates, Morrison can confidently say 2022 was special. And, he added, there is “no doubt about it” that 2022 eclipsed the 2019 attendance.
That was the last year that there was a Clark County Fair. No one could have predicted the next two years. Last year, the fairgrounds did host a family fun series, but it was not an official fair. Not even close.
At one point Thursday, Morrison said 2022 could have been more than 230,000 for the 10-day run. But he had to emphasize he could not be certain of that number.
“It’s going to easily surpass 200,000,” he said later. “That’s the best I can do.”
All those people going to the fairgrounds in Ridgefield must mean the fair is in demand.
“It actually becomes so good that it’s not so good,” Morrison said.
For the fair and its vendors, it was fantastic. For some fairgoers, maybe a bit too intense, he explained.
“It is a very perspective oriented judgment,” Morrison explained. “Is it a good thing to me? Probably. Is it a good thing to somebody who was in a long, long food line or a long, long ride line? Probably not quite so good. I’m sure the feeling of overcrowding or too crowded existed in the minds of a lot of attendees.”
While the crowds might be as big next year, the hope is the fair will have more employees. Morrison noted that the service industry has been struggling with staffing all over the country. Well, the fair had trouble filling positions, as well. Because of that, Morrison said, the fair hired more 16-year-olds than in a typical year. Workers that age are required to have a day off for a 10-day gig.
So administrators looked at previous year’s data and planned to give most of those workers a day off on either Tuesday or Wednesday.
In the past, the fair would average 14,000 or so people on those days. This year, it is estimated 22,000 people showed up on Wednesday.
“We have no idea why or what happened,” Morrison said. “We can handle 22,000 people but if you staff yourself for 14 or 15,000, it’s really a challenge.”
The crowds also made an impact on nearby roads. At one point, traffic was backed up to Padden Parkway on the interstate system. Morrison said the Washington State Department of Transportation reached out, asking if there was a problem. It turned out, it was just that many people coming to the fair at once. The fair did make adjustments, adding a third lane to pull into parking.
The long lines also led for crowded areas. The carnival was packed.
Morrison said he is not sure there is anything that can be done about that in the near future. The carnival area already stretches into some parking spaces.
“Parking is so precious here,” Morrison said.
He is grateful to have the partnership with C-TRAN, which brings in fairgoers from all over the county. But it is clear that while many people enjoy taking the bus, there are a number of people who insist on driving themselves to the fair. He does not see that changing.
Year-round, the fairgrounds has 7,200 parking spaces. But during the fair, with the carnival, with RVs, and with the need for livestock trucks to be parked, the fair has about 5,200 spaces.
If Morrison and the administration decide to add more area for the carnival, it will come at the expense of parking.
“If I bite into my parking for anything, it will hurt,” he said.
Morrison also said he cannot see adding days to the fair’s run. Many of the vendors, including Butler Amusements, are not done with fair season once the Clark County Fair ends. They are on their way to the next stop.
Plus, the Clark County Fair is already one of the longest running fairs in the state. Morrison said there are more than 60 county or community fairs in Washington. Only five go as long as 10 days.
For vendors, though, a larger-than-expected crowd is a good problem to have.
Morrison has several criteria to determine if the fair was successful.
“High on that list: is it safe?. Nobody was hurt,” Morrison said, adding that there were the typical scraped knees or bee stings, but no serious incidents. “All in all, it was a safe fair. To be that crowded and to be safe, that’s a very satisfying feeling.”
For his specific job, did Morrison and his staff conduct a successful fair?
“Was it an economically viable event? It was almost way beyond the norm,” he said.
Then there is the feedback from the folks.
Morrison and staff received only a handful of complaints. With more than 200,000 fairgoers, he will take that.
“The feedback was overwhelmingly positive,” he said.
By those measuring sticks, the Clark County Fair had a stellar run in 2022. Morrison attributed it to people missing the fair through the pandemic. That is the “obvious” reason, he said.
But he also was thrilled with the fair’s marketing campaign. It was determined early to use a media blitz, to get the word out that the fair was back in business for 2022.
The slogan, Worth the Wait, was everywhere.
The fair also upped its entertainment budget to draw big names for its concert series. Martina McBride, Cheap Trick, Daughtry, and Blood, Sweat & Tears performed this year. Morrison and staff are already seeking out names for next year.
It seems as if every decision the fair staff made in the build-up to Summer’s Best Party led to bigger and bigger crowds.
“We’re back,” Morrison said.
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